Bud Jordan built a legacy of personal investment in Martin County. After watching US Sugar infiltrate and turn a local institution against itself, he walked away from a group he founded. But instead of a bitter lesson, Jordan’s work is a blueprint for how to build and protect a healthy community.
Bud Jordan moved to a waterside paradise in 1971 and fell in love. He and his wife Marji ate stone crabs and pompano caught from their dock and swam in the St. Lucie all year long. But it didn’t take long to notice the river’s decline. Slowly at first, but then in awful pulses that came more and more frequently with freshwater discharges from Lake Okeechobee, the grass beds and fish began to disappear. More of the snook Jordan caught had lesions and parasites. The deep river bends silted in with flocculent ooze–polluted, decomposing muck from the lake.
At the same time, Jordan watched more Martin County businesses stagnate and fail. Job growth stalled. Local kids left for careers and never came back. It was immediately clear to him that the health of the water and the economy were connected. Jordan is a businessman–he’d come to the Treasure Coast in the first place to open an office for a Wall Street brokerage. His solution was to lead new investment in his community.
In 1985 he co-founded the Economic Council of Martin County to encourage balanced development that created opportunity without harming the St. Lucie estuary. The group launched an annual river-friendly initiative to highlight the benefits of responsible growth. Three years later Jordan founded the Martin County Community Foundation to stop money from leaving the community faster than it came in. Focusing on education and keeping high school graduates in the region, the group quickly expanded to support an array of charities. Next, in 1991, Jordan helped found the St. Lucie River Initiative, partly to call attention to the damage being done to the estuary by freshwater discharges from Lake Okeechobee. The group evolved into the Rivers Coalition, one of the Treasure Coast’s strongest clean water advocacies.
Martin County grew, and even as the health of the river wavered, Jordan saw his investment strategy take root.
Three Decades of Progress Gone in a Year
In 2016, as the estuary Jordan loved suffered a crushing setback, US Sugar came knocking with an offer the Economic Council couldn’t refuse. The Flint, Michigan-based company, headquartered in Clewiston, offered to pay double dues for a seat at the local table. The deal came from Martin County residents, known and trusted in the community. Since the catastrophic Lake Okeechobee discharges of 2013, US Sugar had begun spending millions on local TV and newspaper ads, supporting area charities, politicians and party organizations, and the arts. They’d even offered to underwrite a fishing tournament to benefit the Rivers Coalition, which said no. But the EC said yes.
The company’s timing was no accident. Local fury over toxic discharges was making headlines, links to US Sugar’s influence over water management policy were in the news, and Martin County was becoming the epicenter of renewed calls for US Sugar to stop blocking the solution–a reservoir in the EAA to store, clean, and send the water south. Lawmakers were listening, and the EC, with its reputation as a business leader, was in position to amplify the message. Instead, once US Sugar joined, an institution with a 30-year history of advocacy for a healthy river and a healthy economy refused to speak up for either, and actually opposed the solution to stop the discharges.
Meanwhile the sugar industry’s control over South Florida’s water was only becoming more obvious to Jordan. As he explains, federal subsidies give the companies an unmatchable war chest, which they use to fund policymaking that keeps sugarcane fields optimally watered and drained, even as the Everglades die of thirst and the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee drown in wastewater. Their policies make Lake Okeechobee an irrigation reservoir, held back by a dam that was never intended to store water–a misuse that puts human lives at risk, according to a Lloyd’s of London assessment.
So when the Economic Council of Martin County, founded to protect the St. Lucie from polluting business interests, instead allied itself with the industry destroying it, Jordan walked away.
Bud Jordan continues to invest in his community, and his legacy runs deep here. When he looks at the St. Lucie, he sees what it was and what it can be again. As Joe Negron, his hometown state senator, won a brutal victory against the sugar industry to finally pass the solution, battling an army of lobbyists and millions of dollars in media and publicity campaigns, Jordan saw an opportunity to give future generations the chance to eat oysters straight from the river like he used to. Many of the kids his foundation encouraged to stay in town now continue Jordan’s work to maintain the link between healthy business and healthy water.
In the year when Jordan washed his hands of an institution he built to revitalize his community, Martin County won its best chance to start fixing the system that triggered its waters’ decline. It’s not a coincidence. Jordan saw more than 30 years ago that the right investments in the right places could restore paradise. His vision is paying off, but his parting words in our meeting rang true:
If there is any advice that I can offer to those continuing the effort that started so many years ago, it’s that the work is not done. Celebrate now, then get back to it.